Photo courtesy Bellevue College

Gary Locke had been on the job as interim president of Bellevue College for about a month when we caught up with him via telephone in July. We wanted to hear how the job was going, the challenges of running the college during a pandemic, what he’s discovered during his initial weeks, plans he might deploy during his yearlong contract, whether the college will ever build on its land in Issaquah, plus ask some questions tapping his perspective from former roles under President Barack Obama and as Washington state governor.

Locke, 70, has a long history in government.

Washingtonians might remember him best as governor from 1997 to 2005. He was elected as the state’s 21st governor on Nov. 5, 1996, and was the first Chinese American governor in U.S. history, according to the Washington State Archives. A Democrat, he was reelected to a second term in 2000.

According to the archives, Locke spent his first six years of childhood in Seattle’s Yessler Terrace, a public housing project for families of World War II veterans. His father, who immigrated to Washington from China, was part of the Normandy invasion. Locke, who learned English in kindergarten, worked in his father’s grocery store, was an Eagle Scout, and graduated with honors from Franklin High School in Seattle. Tapping part-time work, financial aid, and scholarships, he attended Yale University, graduated with a political science degree in 1972, then earned a law degree at Boston University in 1975.

He worked as a King County deputy prosecutor and in 1982 was elected to the state House of Representatives, where for five years he was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee — good background with the state now facing pandemic-related budget woes expected to affect colleges. He also was King County chief executive from 1994 until becoming governor in 1997.

After serving as governor, Locke helped U.S. companies enter international markets as a partner in the Seattle office of law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, where he cochaired its China practice and worked in its government relations practice, according to a post in the Obama White House Archives announcing Locke’s appointment as the country’s 36th Secretary of Commerce in 2009.

Locke held the Commerce role under Obama from 2009 to 2011, and was ambassador to China from 2011 to 2014.

He was named interim president of Bellevue College in May after the former president and a vice president resigned in March over the VP’s altering of words accompanying a mural titled “Never Again Is Now,” at the college showing two Japanese American children in an internment camp during World War II.

Taking over the college after that incident and amid a pandemic that threatens state funding presents challenges, but Locke has been tested before in leadership. In his gubernatorial farewell address to the Legislature on Jan. 11, 2005, he said he was proud of progress made during his two terms in the face of “formidable challenges.” Those challenges, according to the speech posted in the Washington State Archives, “seemed to come from every direction: a major earthquake, an energy crisis, droughts, Sept. 11th, and the constant challenge of improving homeland security. We survived, we rebounded, and we’re charging ahead.”

Higher ed was on his mind then, too. In that speech, he said, “With record high school graduations over the next few years, we must add enrollments to our colleges and universities. Because tuition only provides a small amount of a university’s budget, without extra dollars, we will have to turn students away. As our economy improves, we want our kids to fill these new jobs, instead of businesses needing to hire workers from out of state. Education sets the foundation for individuals to succeed.”

He now has his hands on the wheel of the state’s largest community college, with roughly 29,000 full- and part-time students.

Locke, who has three children — two in their 20s on their own, and a teenager in high school — lives on the Eastside, “just a few minutes” from the college, he said.

Will any of his children follow their father into public service? “I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “Who knows?”

Excerpts from the interview, edited for length, follow.


When you were hired, you said you wanted to encourage a cultural shift on campus, provide stability, and elevate the college’s stature. Briefly describe the needs in each of those areas.

We had that very unfortunate incident early in the spring where one of the vice presidents defaced an art installation and essentially censored out some sentences … very, very unfortunate because it was an art installation that was marking the anniversary of internment of the Japanese from the Bellevue area … during World War II. So there’s a lot of hurt and angst on the campus, and of course now it’s all been superseded and amplified by the concern over Black Lives Matter and institutional racism, and so it’s really great to see the people on campus coming together and talking about all of these societal issues. So one of the things that we have to do as an institution is really look at our policies with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and making sure that everything that we do is through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, not just with respect to our faculty and staff, but really our students, and their graduation and completion rates. We do have a disproportionate number of students who are of color or lower socioeconomic backgrounds who are not succeeding, not getting the degrees or the certificates. So we really need to look at what we as an institution should be doing differently to enable those students to succeed, whether it’s the timing of our courses, the scheduling of our courses, etc. So we need to look at ourselves to say: How can we better serve those students?

Is that something you can accomplish this first year?

We’re examining all of our programs, all the way from the timing of when we offer those courses to the sequencing of courses in order to graduate, or to get a certificate. So we’re turning over every leaf.

What about elevating the college’s stature, how do you do that?

We just need to get our story out, and that’s one of the things that I’m learning — we have such great programs, programs that are offered to students all around the United States, highly acclaimed, great success/graduation rates. We can do more. There’s a hunger out there, a thirst for knowledge, a desire to upgrade one’s skills to remain competitive, or to find a new job. And I think this COVID-19 environment and the angst caused by it are motivating people to sign up for courses, and I think that’s why our summer enrollments are up, especially confined so much to home — might as well take advantage of the opportunity to go online and enhance your position within your company or your industry, or to look at something else and say, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to do this or that. …”

You mentioned in a recent interview that there’s a real need to bring some calm and healing to the campus after the mural incident. It sounds like calm and healing and discussion are well underway at Bellevue College.

Well, it’s always important for any administrator, executive — whether in the private sector, or in government, or a college campus — to be talking with all members of the organization, the rank and file, to really understand what their issues are, and what their dreams and aspirations are, and what their frustrations are. So that will continue.

Do you think you want to apply to be permanent president?

I very much enjoy it. It’s been drinking water from a fire hydrant so far, but it’s challenging, it’s rewarding, and I’m looking forward to the time in which we can all get back on the campus because there’s something very special about being on a college campus: the curiosity, the energy of the students, as well as the academic rigor of the faculty — it’s a special place, a college campus … and Bellevue College is such a beautiful campus. … It’s too early to tell (about seeking a permanent role).

There probably won’t be any physical on-campus experience before the first of the year (due to COVID), right?

Yes, that’s correct.

Summer enrollment’s up about 16 percent, right?

We’re up about 17 percent for summer enrollments, and we’re on track to be pretty much where we were last year in terms of the fall enrollment. So despite the coronavirus, people are using the opportunity to pursue their education.

What do you attribute the summer increase to?

People are recognizing the excellent education that we provide at a very affordable price, and perhaps people are taking advantage of the shelter-in-place, stay-at-home directives/encouragement, and saying, “Hey, I can further my skills, especially in this tough environment, and additional job training can help secure my job, or help me move up within the company, or actually look for a new job.” A lot of people are unemployed, have been laid off and are worried about their economic future, whether within their company or within their sector, or looking for work. And we offer industry-validated programs to help people advance their skills.

The pandemic’s not stopping people from enrolling in the fall, even if it’s going to be an online or hybrid teaching model?

The economic upheaval caused by the coronavirus is only reinforcing in people’s minds the value of education, programs to enhance their skills and to hone their skills, or to help them change professions.

You suggested in an earlier interview that you envision a hybrid model of online and physical classes, even after it’s safe to return to large physical gatherings. Is that what you see going forward, kind of a hybrid college experience?

You’re going to see an expansion of those types of (online) courses. And you’re going to see courses where there’s a combination of online instruction with a live instructor, or perhaps asynchronous, prerecorded programs supplemented by either on-campus instruction, small-discussion groups, laboratories, as well as some courses that might be over the internet, but in a live setting, in real time. And I think this is going to provide more flexibility for the student, especially if they’re working or if they have families. And it certainly will enable more intimate, personal interactions, small-group discussion groups between faculty and students. … The advantages of online learning are greater flexibility for the students and faculty, and enabling more intimate, small-group discussions between faculty and students.

Would those small-group discussions be in Zoom video sessions or in person?

There’s no substitute for in-person, face-to-face interaction, but of course, some of these sessions could be Zoom if the student is in a remote location or in another part of the country.

It sounds like online education, which isn’t new at the college, is proving its worth during the pandemic and will probably be very much an ongoing part of college culture, for the sake of flexibility and convenience.

Bellevue College has for quite some time offered a large percentage of its courses partially online or even completely online, and our faculty are very good at providing a very enriching, meaningful, educational experience for students using the technology.

What’s been your biggest accomplishment in your first month on the job?

I think it’s too early to list accomplishments. It’s just going from issue to issue, just trying to speed up the decision-making process and taking care of some issues that have been kind of longstanding … and just letting people know that we’re trying to bring calm and stability to the campus and that we’re focused on continuing to provide high quality-education in this COVID-19 online environment. But also, we need to make some tough decisions and reexamine everything that we’re doing because of the financial crisis coming from Olympia. State coffers, state tax collections are down dramatically and will remain down over the next several years because of the economic upheaval caused by the virus. … The shortfall in state revenues is having repercussions on all state programs, including our colleges and universities. So we’re being asked to cut back significantly, and so we’re going to have to figure out how we can be more efficient while continuing to serve even more students — and making sure we’re providing those students with the excellent education that Bellevue College is known for.

Is it too soon to say where you might have to cut back?

Well, we’re going to first look at efficiencies and make sure the class sizes are optimal and just cut back on the normal things, whether it’s travel and keeping some vacancies open here and there; we’re going to look at streamlining the administration, reducing costs. We’re going to be convening a group of stakeholders over the next several months to really look at where we want the college to be, not just next year, but three, five, 10 years from now. What areas should we really be focusing on and expanding? … The reduction in funds from Olympia should not be viewed as strictly a budget-reduction exercise, but really a reimagining of the college as a whole. What are our strengths? What do we need to enhance? What do we need to focus on?

Speaking of possible expansion, the college has some land up in the Issaquah Highlands zoned for a future college campus. Are there any plans to try to move forward with that campus anytime soon?

That’ll all be part of the strategic planning and the visioning of the college. Obviously, the Eastside is growing, (there are) a lot of people up on the plateau, and there’s big development there with respect to even the health care industry and other employers. One of our strengths at Bellevue College is in the health care industry, and a lot of our graduates are going into health care and that’s going to be a growing sector of the economy over the next several decades, so we’re going to have to just take a look at all of that.

What is the most pressing issue you need to address as interim president?

We’ve got several priorities in front of us: informing parents and students of the great value of Bellevue College — excellent education at a fraction of the cost of even the four-year public schools. … Another great program we have is the Running Start program. That’s kind of … a little-known secret in the state of Washington where high school students can take college courses for free at our … community (and) technical colleges and earn college credits. … Some high school students will take a few courses at Bellevue College and still be part of the high school social activities … but they’ll graduate from high school with a few college credits, which will make their college experience faster and cheaper. Some students actually spend their entire high school career on the campus of Bellevue College, and they will graduate with a high school degree, but also two years of college credit. (Running Start had an average of about 2,754 students per quarter last school year. It allows 11th- and 12th-grade students to take college courses at Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges. Tuition is free, but students are responsible for mandatory fees, books, and transportation.)

President Barack Obama meets with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in the Oval Office, Feb. 24, 2010. | Photo by Pete Souza

What was your proudest accomplishment as Commerce Secretary under Obama?

The 2010 Census was the most accurate census in U.S. history. It was identified as the most troubled technology project facing the Obama administration when he came into office. We were able to reverse a 30-year decline in mail-back participation … and we brought the census in at 25 percent under budget for a savings of $2 billion.

How would you rate the U.S. relationship with China today?

Oh, it’s just really terrible, and it’s really sad to see, because while we do have major differences between our two countries on trade and economic policy, and intellectual property, and market access, we actually have been collaborating on a whole host of things in other areas, from medical research to climate change to even international peacekeeping efforts. Our two economies depend on each other. China is America’s largest export destination for our farmers and producers. Clearly we have differences with the policies of the Chinese government, but it’s important that we not, as a country, blame either the Chinese people or Chinese Americans who are here in the United States for those policies of the Chinese government.

How would you rate Gov. Jay Inslee’s response to the COVID pandemic in Washington state?

Oh my gosh, I just really feel for him. It’s a heavy, heavy, heavy burden, when you see how many people have died. … (But) he’s really provided great leadership … when you see what has happened in other states, and he’s been guided by health professionals, and being very cautious in the reopening strategies and the staging of reopenings. Look at what has happened to other states when they opened up way too early.

Anything else that you feel is important to mention about your role as president at Bellevue College?

Bellevue College offers exceptional education for people in all stages of their life at a very affordable price, and parents and students should really check out the Running Start program — free college education while in your high school years.